The Miracle of Jewish Pandemic Giving

Long criticized in certain quarters for being, in essence, too Jewish, Jewish donors have risen admirably to the coronavirus occasion, proving their value once again.

June 28, 2021 | Jack Wertheimer
About the author: Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary. His latest book, The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice their Religion Today, has been issued recently as a paperback.

A volunteer prepares meals at Chasdei Kaduri Jewish Food Bank in Toronto in November 2020. Shawn Goldberg/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

This is the third in a series of articles on the impact of the pandemic on different sectors of American Jewish life. Earlier ones may be found here and here.

Extolled some 65 years ago by Fortune as the “miracle of Jewish giving,” Jewish philanthropy has come under withering criticism from certain quarters more recently. The reasons are manifold but at heart critics contend that Jewish giving simply is too—Jewish. To cite a few examples: a prominent authority on international development went so far as to urge Jewish charities to drop “their local and parochial concerns . . . [and] recast such activities in a global effort” to alleviate all human poverty. Another critic did not shrink from asking whether “in subsidizing trips to Israel and funding Jewish day schools, are Jewish philanthropists retreating into a narrow tribalism?”

During the past year, a similar line of attack has focused on a new project named the Jewish Future Pledge because it asks those who sign up to “devote at least half of the charitable funds in their estate plan to support ‘the Jewish people and/or the state of Israel.’” This would be awful, according to one of the attackers, because it “would guarantee a capital-rich Jewish future,” enable those who earned large sums of dollars to dominate the future by virtue of “their wealth and capital control,” and add to the “accumulation” of Jewish money when it could better be put to immediate use.

Whether intended or not, these critiques of Jewish funders sometimes invoke stock anti-Semitic canards. Claiming Jews are motivated by “narrow tribalism” is not all that different from smearing them for their “clannishness;” and accusing Jewish funders of hoarding their wealth to control others follows a long tradition of portraying wealthy Jews as uniquely power-hungry exploiters.

To anyone paying attention, these stereotypes of Jewish philanthropy couldn’t be further from the truth. Ample data demonstrate that more Jews give to non-sectarian than to Jewish causes and have done so for decades. As for the hoarding of Jewish wealth, one need only stroll through the civic and cultural institutions of America and look at the Jewish names on university campuses, the grounds of medical centers, museums, concert halls, and theaters (especially those constructed during the past four decades). Indeed, to the extent that there is a looming crisis in Jewish philanthropy, it stems from the predilection of the younger Jews now assuming responsibility for grant-making to ignore specifically Jewish needs.

For those who are curious to know how Jewish philanthropy actually operates, the coronavirus crisis has served as a living laboratory. A good deal of what I report here already is in the public domain. The rest I’ve gleaned from interviews with a range of professionals working at Jewish not-for-profits or foundations scattered in some sixteen communities throughout the United States and executives at national organizations who have kept tabs on local developments. A word of warning to those eager to dismantle the “American Jewish philanthropic complex:” what follows is a remarkably uplifting story, for, rather like their counterparts in synagogue and communal life, Jewish philanthropies have risen admirably to the coronavirus occasion.


When the pandemic first hit these shores in March of 2020, no one knew how the so-called independent sector—philanthropists and not-for-profit agencies dependent on outside funding—would fare. Markets plummeted, and individual donors felt an unprecedented level of existential vulnerability, particularly those who were older and knew peers who had succumbed to COVID-19. All this caused panic among leaders of Jewish non-profits who feared that funders would hunker down and not honor their pledges, let alone commit to making any new grants.

Fortunately, markets recovered quickly, organizations pivoted to virtual work, and funders assured their grantees that approved projects would continue to be funded as scheduled, a promise also made by some 800 American foundations outside of the Jewish sector. Within weeks, major foundations supporting Jewish causes announced their intention to relax reporting requirements for grantees and work cooperatively with them as they adapted to new circumstances. It quickly became clear that the worst-case scenarios initially feared—more or less the end of much of organized Jewish life—had not materialized and that Jewish funders at all levels were giving generously. As one professional at a Jewish community foundation put it, “Christmas came in April,” meaning that normal end-of-year spikes in grant-making were already evident one month after the pandemic surged in the United States. And that generosity of giving has continued to the present day.

Despite limitations on the available data due to the fact that most donors give through a variety of philanthropic vehicles, and foundation tax filings for 2020 have not yet been made public, it’s possible to glean some year-over-year information about grants made from funds belonging to individual donors parked at Jewish not-for-profits. The Jewish Communal Fund of New York, an umbrella for individual funds, reported disbursements in 2020 of over a half-billion dollars, a 17-percent increase over 2019, the most recent pre-coronavirus year. The Chicago Federation’s Center for Jewish Philanthropy registered an 80-percent increase of dollars granted by certain funds in 2020, although giving to Jewish causes was up by a mere six percent compared to whopping 210-percent increase to non-sectarian ones. Interviews with professionals at Jewish community foundations in a dozen other locations yielded a similar pattern of increased dollars disbursed by donors during the pandemic, though again there were wide variations in how much of these funds went to Jewish versus non-sectarian causes.

As for giving by foundations, we have some limited information from a survey conducted by the Jewish Funders Network at the end 2020, covering the first six months of the pandemic. Slightly over half had departed from the previous focus of their giving by supporting basic human needs. Over 85 percent had made emergency grants to address coronavirus relief, totaling over $400 million. Three-quarters increased their outlay of grant funds. And almost all intended to continue giving at the same rate or higher in 2021. (These data were indicative of trends, though the exact percentages may be off, in part because only 30 percent of JFN members responded and not all were foundations.)

To be sure, not all funders participated in this outpouring of giving. There were some who suffered financial setbacks during the pandemic and were unable to deliver on their pledges. The head of a national organization noted that around 10 percent of his funders reneged on their pledges of funds for undesignated gifts. Some promised grants for capacity building and did not give. In particular, donors whose wealth came from the hospitality industry—hotels, the leisure sector, restaurants, travel, parking lots—saw a decline in their income and in some cases were driven out of business. Still, the overall direction of Jewish giving ensured stable fundraising and significant increases for Jewish and non-sectarian causes.


If it’s a bit hard to figure out exactly how much money flowed out during the pandemic, much more detail is available on where that money went. Relative to pre-coronavirus funding, the human-services sector of the Jewish world benefited the most, primarily Jewish child- and family-services agencies, which in fact serve all populations, and not solely Jews. Among the best-supported programs were food pantries, which distribute kosher food to those who observe Jewish dietary restrictions as well as non-kosher items to those who don’t. The extra money helped those programs not only increase the amount of food they could provide but also the way they could provide it. Because so many people, especially older populations, were fearful of leaving their homes during the pandemic, the number of delivered food packages soared, while some food-distribution sites arranged for people to stay in their cars to pick up their packages. Meanwhile, human-services agencies and Hebrew free-loan societies also helped those in danger of losing their housing by granting rent subsidies and no-interest loans. Other funds were used to purchase Internet-enabled tablets and laptops so that children in homes lacking these technological tools could participate in online school classes. Finally, the emotional havoc inflicted by social isolation during the pandemic has prompted a major expansion in counseling services for families, and especially children and teens.

A survey conducted in March 2021 by the Network of Jewish Human Services Agencies has provided a quantitative accounting of these developments. Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, the numbers of clients with mental health or food needs increased by over 90 percent. Demands for services by families with children, people requiring housing assistance and emergency aid, as well as senior adult clients all rose by over 80 percent. Holocaust survivors, unemployed individuals, and teens seeking aid from human-services agencies also increased by over 70 percent. Though severely stretched, the 140 Jewish human-services agencies were able to support these vastly expanded populations with the help of government grants. Even larger increases in funding came from federations of Jewish philanthropy, foundations, and individual donors, each of which contributed 50 to 65 percent more dollars than prior to the pandemic.

Heads of some these agencies report their astonishment at the dramatic increases in funding they have been receiving, often without their even asking. One professional reported that when he applied for a grant from a foundation, he was gently berated for asking for too little and told to increase the budget and simplify the proposal. Individual donors of lesser means have been writing checks to support the work of human-services agencies. Four families chipped in to send a sizable check, which required some financial stretch on their parts. An individual sends a $10,000 check every quarter without being solicited. And wealthy donors also have volunteered to help at the food pantry. At one food-distribution center, a man driving a Maserati picked up packages to deliver to shut-ins. At the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, Jews of modest means sent $5, $10, and $100 checks to aid neighbors going through hard times, even as they themselves were hard-pressed.

When asked how they understand this outpouring of support, professionals at human-services agencies offer similar answers. “Funders have felt powerless but intentionally used their pocketbooks to make a difference,” said one. Others described how emotionally shaken people with means were by news stories about food scarcity, unemployment, and the loss of housing in their local communities. They felt a human and civic responsibility to “do good,” especially when they saw long lines at food pantries indicating how many people lacked supplies to feed their families. Some professionals described funders who were deeply affected by what the pandemic revealed about the unpredictability of life and death. They had assumed that tomorrow would be like every previous day. This caused some to rethink what is most important in their lives, the legacy they hope to leave, and their giving priorities. (For this reason and perhaps also due to uncertainty over new tax regulations in the offing, estate planners have been swamped with new business.) Some donors were motivated by concerns about specific Jewish sub-populations, such as Holocaust survivors and elderly shut-ins who could not shop for food during much of the pandemic.


Throughout the pandemic, federations of Jewish philanthropy, those much scoffed-at giants of the institutional Jewish world, earned a newfound respect. Their ability to channel funds directly to the human-services agencies and to other worthy actors, thereby putting dollars to immediate use, made their value, supposedly obscure in normal times, blazingly obvious. Thus, making a grant to the local federation was seen by funders as the speediest way to alleviate distress among those people suffering most during the pandemic.

Almost across the board, federations have received more donor gifts and an infusion of more dollars during the coronavirus crisis compared to the years before. All 45 intermediate-size federations saw increased giving. One Florida federation, for example, reports that the number of its contributors giving between $50,000 and $99,000 has doubled. At another federation, a professional recounts how a donor who hadn’t contributed to the federation in a decade sent a check out of the blue for $250,000—and then continued to send checks in the same amount every quarter for over a year, all as unrestricted money. Like many other federation givers during the past fifteen months, this funder trusted the federation to put his money to good use.

COVID-19 also led directly to an unexpected development that has affected the fortunes of some federations, namely the migration of donors from one part of the country to another. Professionals situated at Jewish institutions in Florida and Texas couldn’t believe their good luck when many families relocated to their states and an unusual number of snowbirds remained in Florida during the summer of 2020. Those who could escape from their urban homes tended to be people of means; some are exceedingly rich. Despite the difficulty of meeting new arrivals in person, fundraisers at federations and other Jewish institutions in the sunbelt have made contact with the new arrivals, with the upshot being growth in both the frequency and the amounts of gifts. If the newcomers decide to stay after the pandemic eases, institutions in their home communities may face a significant drop in grants, but thus far that has not occurred. The new migrants also have continued to support fundraising campaigns in their home communities in the Northeast and Midwest. And with needs so glaringly evident in every community, federation professionals admit their script for raising funds during the pandemic has written itself.

Educational institutions also have fared relatively well, considering the especially difficult circumstances they faced. When residential summer camps were forced to cancel the 2020 season and therefore collected no revenues, many feared that some or most would fold. The estimated cost of keeping the camps afloat was in the vicinity of $150 million. But thanks to a proliferation of interest-free-loan funds and other forms of funder support, almost the entirety of that sum was raised, and the camps saved. Jewish day schools also faced high hurdles, though for the academic year 2020-2021 their highest costs were incurred not from closings but from the unprecedented expenses required to reopen the schools safely. Day schools invested in protective equipment; some had to rent additional facilities in order to spread their students safely into “pods”; and others built new classroom space on their grounds to allow for socially distanced learning. It was not unusual for safe-opening costs to exceed a half-million dollars per school, and in some cases double or even triple that sum. Fortunately, the funds were raised, and Jewish day schools have remained largely open this school year for in-person classes, a feat many public schools failed to achieve.

So much for the domestic sphere. How has all this domestic giving affected international Jewish causes, especially Israeli institutions reliant on American Jewish philanthropic support? With several hundred so-called “friends of” Israeli institutions raising funds in this country and no central database to track giving trends, this is a difficult question to answer, but the situation seems in line with what I’ve just reported. Professionals at “friends of” Israel’s major universities report high levels of giving, particularly of major gifts. Even during the pandemic, medical, high-tech, and artificial-intelligence projects have attracted generous donor support to research institutions in Israel. And professional fund disbursers across the U.S. generally describe sums going to Israeli institutions as holding steady, even as some funders have increased their grants to address domestic needs. (Though strictly speaking not a charitable contribution, Israel Bonds had a banner year in 2020.)

The experience of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) highlights how increased domestic giving did not undercut support for international Jewish causes. As the largest American Jewish aid organization serving Jews across the globe, the JDC raised $15 million more for its 2020 annual campaign than in the previous year. In addition, it ran special emergency campaigns to support Israeli NGOs hard hit during the pandemic, Jews in Europe requiring special services, such as home food deliveries, and Jews in Argentina struggling with the effects of COVID-19. The JDC made the case to funders that the pandemic had created populations of “the new Jewish poor.” Much like federations in North America, the JDC had a track-record to inspire donor confidence that it could address Jewish needs effectively.


Of course, not every kind of not-for-profit has benefitted from this outpouring of grants. Elder residences especially found themselves in a precarious situation. They have expended large sums to keep residents and caregivers safe, even as they received virtually no new admissions, since many families were scared away by the many coronavirus outbreaks and deaths in elder facilities across the country. Some senior residences found dependable sources of funding from long-time supporters who valued elder care, but many others have been left to scrounge. In some cases, administrators at senior residences were forced to purchase personal protective equipment by running balances on institutional credit cards; those accumulated debts have proven difficult to pay off. Professionals at these residences speak bitterly about how “unsexy” their homes are to funders who have the means to hire home-care aides for their own elderly relatives. As one put it, “Society has to reckon that we are not really taking care of older people. The government is not, and philanthropists are not.” The challenges of supporting these residences will not go away post-pandemic. Increasing numbers of older Jews need affordable housing and special care, and that demand will only grow more complex as the large Baby Boomer generation reaches an advanced age. Nor is the biblical command to treat the elderly with dignity and care so easily dismissed.

Meanwhile, Jewish institutions promoting arts and culture have struggled to remain afloat. Museums have been closed for a year and only are gradually reopening. The same is true of concert halls, theaters, and other performance spaces. Pivoting to virtual programs has provided work for some. But on the whole, cultural institutions have not been able to raise funds when their spaces have been dark for over a year and while funders have been focused on problems of life and death.

The same preoccupation has affected the start-up sector too. Over the past two decades, a range of new, generally small, institutions have been established by younger Jews to meet the needs of their peers. Some have focused on once-marginalized populations; others offer special programs for the study Jewish texts, or opportunities for cultural expression; and still others work to address poverty, social ills, and the environment. All rely heavily upon funding from donors, rather than fees for services. During the health crisis, grant commitments made prior to the pandemic have been honored by funders and that may be enough to tide start-ups over until normalcy returns. But with the focus of donors on daily needs, the pandemic has not been an ideal time to float proposals for experimental projects. In a way, this is the reverse of the situation with the federations. Just as they and other legacy organizations found it harder to raise funds before the pandemic, when the temper of the times was to support innovation, the focus of funders during the pandemic has shifted to sustaining existing organizations deemed most vital to Jewish life.

Previously common attitudes of scorn among those in the philanthropic sector toward so-called legacy institutions were tempered by the harsh realities of the pandemic. As a professional at one such institutions put it: “the emergency brought clarity to the philanthropic world. In a crisis you need organizations with history, boots on the ground, know-how, and experience.” That is virtually the opposite of what foundations sought in the pre-coronavirus era from their grantees. Then they were looking for disruptors. No doubt, once the pandemic has passed, there will be renewed emphasis on innovation. But perhaps funders won’t be quick to forget what they learned during the pandemic about the need to sustain a communal infrastructure for the next rainy day. Crises have a way of erupting unexpectedly and frequently.

The reorientation of foundations has been particularly noteworthy. Most large foundations suddenly saw themselves as the crucial backstop to make sure that the most important institutions in their local communities were able to weather the COVID-19 storm. This represented a major shift from their focus prior to the pandemic, when they mainly understood their role to be providers of risk capital, that is funding for experimentation and innovation, and as strategic planners who worked to address large challenges confronting Jewish life. Now, they were called upon to sustain bread-and-butter Jewish institutions. Some foundations, in fact, have refrained from making new grants in the areas closest to their stated missions because they wanted to have funds available to address the crisis. In all likelihood, foundations will resume funding mainly in support of their core mission, but that has not yet happened. And when it does, they may operate differently from the pre-COVID-19 era.

The alacrity with which funders have responded during the pandemic and the large relief funds marshaled to address needs does not mean that the Jewish philanthropic enterprise should be immune from all criticism. Serious questions are rightfully asked about the proper balance of giving to Jewish versus non-sectarian causes. Funders have their own personal predilections—but are they acting responsibly with their giving? Certainly, there is room for second-guessing about the types of institutions favored by some funders. Are they well-managed? Do their programs make sense? And does their work contribute adequately to Jewish life? Additional questions ought to be posed about a lack of transparency by funders when it impedes a proper assessment of their effectiveness. Some rethinking also is in order about whether the holders of donor-advised funds, one of the central routes through which charitable donations flow, ought to be required to disburse a minimal percentage of funds in their accounts annually the way foundations do, and also whether there ought to be a time limit to how long monies may sit in such funds unallocated. Such reforms are certainly worthy of consideration, particularly because they do not single out specific sub-groups of funders, such as Jewish givers, but seek the expeditious disbursement of capital shielded from taxes.

But the kinds of criticism noted at the outset of this article singling out Jewish funders deserves to be dismissed, especially in light of how well donors have acted during the pandemic. Jewish donors have admirably balanced wider humanitarian needs and specifically Jewish ones. And that outpouring of giving was possible in part because wealthy Jews had placed some of their assets in foundations, endowment funds, and other philanthropic vehicles for rainy-day needs. In short, the accumulation of philanthropic wealth helped speed relief to those in the greatest need. Rather than interrogate Jewish philanthropy, perhaps it would be more appropriate to put its critics on the spot with this question: no one in a position of responsibility has urged Jewish donors to give solely to Jewish causes and ignore humanitarian ones. What, then, motivates those who urge Jewish benefactors to reduce radically, if not cease, all giving in support of Jewish needs and vital communal institutions?